When Sharon Bajer found out she'd be acting opposite Canadian stage legend Martha Henry in August: Osage County, a hit play about a wildly dysfunctional family, she knew it would be memorable.
"I was very, very, very excited," says the well-known Winnipeg performer. "It's just a privilege ... like working with a master."
But Bajer, 43, never imagined she'd become the impromptu hairdresser for the Detroit-born Henry, 74, a veteran Stratford actor and director who is the reigning first lady of Canadian theatre.
Henry, who first trod the boards at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre 50 seasons ago in The Lady's Not for Burning, plays Violet Weston, the nasty, pill-popping Oklahoma matriarch in the darkly funny August: Osage County, opening tonight at the RMTC Warehouse.
Bajer plays Violet's estranged eldest daughter, Barbara, who returns home with the rest of the volatile clan when the alcoholic patriarch goes missing.
Both are juicy roles, to be played by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in next year's movie version of the play.
The 13-member Winnipeg cast also includes Arne MacPherson, Samantha Hill, Steven Ratzlaff, Miriam Smith and David Warburton.
Violet has mouth cancer -- a metaphor for her poison tongue -- and has undergone chemotherapy. A hairdresser was brought in to give the elegant, radiant-cheeked Henry a short haircut, but Henry thought the chop wasn't extreme enough for a post-chemo look.
Not wanting to waste rehearsal time on another appointment, a few days ago she asked Bajer to grab some scissors from the wardrobe department and hack away.
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"I thought it was kind of neat that my daughter would cut my hair," says Henry, a companion of the Order of Canada whose other honours include Genie and Gemini awards and the Governor General's lifetime-achievement award.
"She wanted it to look like fuzz," says Bajer. "I don't know how to cut hair! I couldn't believe she was trusting me!"
If that says something about Henry's devotion to her character, so does her research into Violet's addiction to prescription pills like Vicodin and Xanax. "I looked up all those drugs. It's in my script -- I wrote down all the symptoms," she says.
In a dinner-table scene, Bajer's Barbara gets so enraged at her cruel, drug-addled mother that she tries to strangle her. A fight director choreographed the assault and Bajer says she's not intimidated to lunge at Henry's throat.
"Martha is sturdy," says Bajer. "She's not a frail person. (Her character) has just been so vicious to everybody. . . .
"It's fun, actually. By the time we get to that point in the dinner, I really do want to attack her."
Henry recalls that early in her career, when an actor was slapped across the face, there was none of today's fakery by clapping the hands to simulate a loud slap. It was a real blow.
Her first time being slapped onstage was in the play Epitaph for George Dillon. She was about 21 years old.
"Charmion King (another stage legend) had to come down a staircase and slap me. Every time, I could feel it coming and I (she mimes a flinch of fear) would do that. The director finally just got furious with me and said, 'You're wincing before the slap ever comes!'"
The director told her to stay in the emotion of the encounter. She was able to stop flinching. "That was a life-changing moment for me onstage," she says.
Henry isn't able to accept many regular-season roles because from fall to spring, she runs the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre in Stratford, Ont., where she has lived since the 1960s.
This summer, she is directing the classic Hedda Gabler at the Shaw Festival. It's a play that brings back memories of Winnipeg, where RMTC co-founder John Hirsch was an early mentor of Henry's. (Actor Donnelly Rhodes, the first of her three husbands, was a Winnipegger and she adopted the surname Henry from his family.)
In the 1972-73 season, she starred here in Hedda Gabler just three months after giving birth to her only child, daughter Emma, with second husband Douglas Rain (another Winnipegger). Henry remembers walking the streets with the baby snuggled in a carrier on her chest, inside a massive coat.
The doyenne has no regrets about roles she turned down, but does occasionally wonder where they might have led. Back around 1990, she remembers, her agent called just after the season ended at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., where she was then artistic director.
"They wanted me to play the mother in a film called A River Runs Through It, and Robert Redford was directing. The hair stood up on the back of my neck."
She took several deep breaths, told the agent she couldn't back out of directing An Enemy of the People at Stratford, and hung up.
"I walked down the corridor and stood in the middle of the administration offices, and I screamed, 'ROBERT REDFORD!' It was all the more pitiful because there were no actors in the building. There was nobody that would actually understand."
August: Osage County
-- RMTC Warehouse
-- Opens tonight, to March 24
-- Tickets $19.95 to $42 at 942-6537 or www.mtc.mb.ca
August: Osage County, a tragicomedy about a bitter clan that's forced to gather during a crisis, originated in Chicago in 2007. Tulsa-born playwright Tracy Letts set it in his home state of Oklahoma and loosely based the spiteful matriarch on his grandmother.
Hailed by the New York Times as "the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years ... fiercely funny and bitingly sad," it ran on Broadway from 2007-09. Often compared to the works of Eugene O'Neill, it won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony for best play.
With its family wracked by secrets, resentments and dirt -- incest, suicide, cruelty, adultery, addictions, pedophilia -- August: Osage County belongs to a long American tradition of razor-edged domestic dramas. "It does feel like you're in an O'Neill or Tennessee Williams play," says Sharon Bajer, who plays the eldest daughter. "But I think where it departs is that it walks such a fine line between the tragedy and the comedy. (As a viewer), you're really laughing through tears. You can be horrified by what's going on, but finding it hilarious."
The show has three acts and two intermissions, for a total of three hours and 15 minutes. Entertainment Weekly, which named it one of the best plays of the decade, said it "went by in one lightning-fast jolt of pure theatrical electricity."
The setting, Osage County, has a large aboriginal population and is on the plains, giving it parallels to Manitoba. "It's really interesting that there's one aboriginal character (the housekeeper) that's taking care of this dysfunctional American family," Bajer says.